First things first
I’ma say all the words inside my head
I’m fired up and tired of the way that things have been…
Believer, Imagine Dragons

Well, that escalated quickly.

I shouldn’t be surprised, really. Reddit doesn’t exactly have the best reputation. Not that all of Reddit is a terrible place ~ it’s too big to be as bad as all that ~ but some parts of it are… shall we say, excessive? [That link is definitely not safe for anybody…] More to the point, though, we’re talking about online forums which, much like public forums throughout history, are moderated by a few or are left un-moderated and so allow for two types of tyranny: rule by a few or rule by the loudest and most obnoxious. When you add in the anonymity granted by the forum, you remove one of the few controls we have in the real world: the ability to punch an offensive person in the face. This physical immunity encourages people to greater and greater forms of excess.

As I said in these other posts, I understand why the one thread was locked down. From an outside view, it was my first post with no history of contribution; the definition clearly excludes certain types of commonly accepted RPGs; and I was responding frequently and without taking the time to explain my reasoning ~ which was absolutely my fault because I assumed that my answers implied certain things when they did not. So it’s reasonable that a moderator would put a stop to the discussion.

Still… acknowledging that does not inherently invalidate the responses I received. Let’s consider:

“Trying to find an exact definition of something like RPGs is… useless, senseless, and uninteresting. Or, rather, trying to decide what is and isn’t an RPG, and then deciding that some things that are labelled as RPGs actually aren’t is a foolish endeavour (sic). You’ll gain absolutely nothing, except maybe the smug impression of playing “real” RPGs if that’s your temperament…”

“Are you saying that gmless (sic) games aren’t RPGs? Because if the definition states that RPG games have a GM but there are games without GMs that are still considered RPGs then that definition doesn’t work.”

“Many RPGs have a GM role, but not all. Many use polyhedral dice, but not all. Some use d6s, some are diceless (sic). Most have a combat system, but some do not.”

“How can you define role-playing games with out (sic) a broad definition?”

Microscope and Kingdom are most definitely roleplaying games. By requiring a GM in your definition, you exclude them, making your definition invalid.”

“So Fiasco, Happy Birthday Robot, Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple, The Quiet Year, and The Shab Al-Hiri Roach — all well-respected games solidly accepted as part of the RPG hobby — aren’t RPGs? One of which won an Ennie, with at least 5 other Ennie nominations among the others? “

This is the attitude of the community: don’t tell me what I’m doing is wrong. Be inclusive; don’t be exclusive; don’t set up barriers to entry. Because that makes us feel attacked and we can’t handle someone challenging our assumptions.

Except this is what we do. This is what we, as rational, thinking creatures, have done for all of human history. We observe, we analyze, we describe, we theorize, we classify; and the results of this process are everywhere around us. All of our technical, sociological, theological, scientific and other advancements exist because someone, somewhere, took the time to ask and answer a question.

And yes, I’m just conceited enough to compare myself to the giants of the past.

What do I hope to achieve with this? (It’s telling that not one person has thought to ask this question.) A better understanding of the hobby. If we define something, using specific and precise language, we create opportunities to challenge that definition. It isn’t necessary to have a definition, of course; someone saw an opportunity and created the first GM-less RPG, which opened the door for similar games; and that happened without the sort of definition I’m looking for. Having a definition, however, will make more opportunities.

Can the GM and player share world-creation responsibilities, as suggested by the various GM-lite or GM-less games? Yes but doing so creates a different sort of limit on the game. With a single GM responsible for the world-setting, you have a neutral participant; she is not concerned with the success or failure of the PCs. She has no vested interest in the players’ success (beyond being a friend and an empathetic human being). When the game shares world-ownership, the participant is put into a position of conflicting priorities: he wants his character to succeed but he’s been given control over a portion of the world. Why would he not use that to his advantage? Maybe the better question is, why would he want to cheat the game that way? Well, if the game offers rewards similar to games like D&D or the Palladium Fantasy RPG, then the player has the incentive. Remove those rewards and the player can’t be tempted by the rules of the game.

Can you have a risk/reward system and limit the game by means of story or plot elements? Yes and it may be preferable to do so when you’re just learning how to run as a new gamemaster. Doing so limits player agency and will eventually run counter to the purpose behind a risk/reward system. It can be done but it’s definitely better to learn how to run a game without story restrictions. Or you can run a game without the risk/reward system. It’s an integral part of an RPG, near as I can tell, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do without.

There are other questions raised by defining RPGs. Mostly, at least in my head, they’re half-formed and require time to work themselves out. And as the definition I wrote is still a draft so for the time-being, I have to accept that this is an unsettled issue.


10 thoughts on “Feathers

Add yours

  1. What you want is game design talk, and you sought it in a game advice forum. You’re gonna get folks who answer inanely. Even on reddit, I think game design forums do exist…but also have an alternative:


    This is a forum which frequently talks about both game design and game advice. They really love story-games though. Rather than posting in general there, my recommendation is that you try to get some alone time with a user named Eero Tuovinen.

    He wrote this:

    He both understands story-games and understands the roots of D&D, and appreciates both, rather than just dismissing one or the other. If you could ask him questions he might have interesting answers or debate points for you. Or he may be tired. I’m sure he’s been asked before.

    Also, below is a video with folks who reach a different conclusion from you, i.e., D&D is indeed separate from other RPGs, but it’s because D&D is actually not good at the role-playing aspect. At all.

    They propose here and elsewhere that D&D is a combat, dungeon, and travel simulator. It is the community around it which really flavors what sort of game it is. You take the community Tao has cultivated, and you get a very particular sort of running. You take the community Critical Role has cultivated, and you get a very particular other sort of running. You take the general reddit D&D community…I have no idea what you get. Something presumably fun for an evening but dreary for a campaign.

    Dunno. I’ve got no answers for you, just other places to look. I do agree with Eero and Rym on a lot of things though.

  2. I think part of why it’s so hard to draw a clear line on the bounds of RPG’s is because there hasn’t been any proper bounds for so long. This means that many people have had their own ideas of what an RPG constituted, and thus categorized quite different things under the same name. And if you then try to take the common points of these games to make a proper definition, all you get is a mess. And if you use only your definition, people feel excluded. It’s probably not very easy to solve. It might be easier to claim a new sub-category for yourself (though not necessarily the right choice, who knows).

    (Also, while reading this I had this weird idea to make an oldschool GM-as-unpartial-god RPG where the *characters* are able to manipulate the very fabric of the world in the style of story games (they are petty gods or what have you) but within a proper framework. Huh.)

  3. How I hate commenting on wordpress…

    Like you, I’m not surprised by the adversity. “Role-playing” has become an identity for a great many people, who now wear it as a badge to identify themselves as apart from others who do not understand or who do not share their personal cultural perspective. As such, the act of role-playing has become a principle of faith, leading to feelings of entitlement and righteousness when approached by those who would set themselves up as scientists and bean-counters. As such, in the gaming culture at this time, “what is role-playing?” has as much chance of being parsed and classified as “what is religious belief?” or “what is equality?” That is, none.

    1. I’ve had no issues with WordPress. I don’t use my Blogger site anymore because I’ve always had problems with their setup.

      I’m not asking, “What is role-playing.” I’m asking, “What is a role-playing game.” We know what games are. We can define them and we can study them; we have been for nearly a century (with roots going back to the 1700s). Why should we feel challenged when we apply reasoning or logic? Just because we know that it’s possible to solve chess, to prove that there is an optimal strategy and a confirmed way to play the game, doesn’t mean that we can’t play it how we want. People almost never act with perfect knowledge or perfect strategy or anything even remotely close to perfection, thus all games will always be interesting; you always have a chance to win.

      But maybe that’s the critical detail that people want to avoid: in a game, you have winners and losers. Nobody wants to be a loser. Everybody wants to be a winner. Everybody wants their participation trophy because everybody likes the dopamine hit that comes from seeing sparkly lights on their cellphones that shows they’ve done the right thing because, if they didn’t, they wouldn’t get the reward.

      Maybe some of us are just different…

  4. What’s actually wrong with (part of) the Wiki definition?

    A role-playing game is a game in which players assume the roles of characters in a fictional setting. Players take responsibility for acting out these roles.

    This seems like it captures the essence well. It covers everything from Cops’n’Robbers to CJRPGs. The important parts are the roles and the setting.

    “If we define something, using specific and precise language, we create opportunities to challenge that definition. Having a definition…will make more opportunities.”

    Eh, maybe. Does that really get us to understand anything? The dictionary isn’t where we go for deeper understanding; we go to the encyclopedia.

    1. The thing is… and I should probably elaborate on this… it’s not really accurate to call a role-playing game, a “game,” without understanding what a game is.

      This is another area that’s difficult to address because, for most people, the common definition of the word includes things like single-player games, drinking games or party/social games. Each of these isn’t a game, depending on the definition that you use, but hey, they’re all fun, aren’t they? How are they not games?

      1. “I should probably elaborate on this…”

        Well, only so far as it is useful 🙂

        Most people understand that “play/game/jou” is just a diversionary activity: kids play without understanding the psychoevolutionary theories behind the academic research into what “Play” is.

        Honestly, I think that much of this dissection is over-analysis, much of it done by old bastards such as myself who are not sure what has happened to the mainstream of their hobby.

        The PAX-Australia video (which jacuzziant shared above) is more sociologically interesting than I had anticipated. Their definition of what an RPG is aside (they defined an RPG-system, imo), they detailed several “RPGs” in their overview, revealing their preferences and biases and histories. In doing so, they may have revealed the actual sticking point between the Old Guard and the New: almost *none* of their “RPGs” allowed for anything resembling a campaign.

        This is telling,especially for long-time gamemasters. One-shot evenings of fun are trivial; long-term, satisfying Campaigns are difficult, and what I consider the ideal expression of our hobby. However, some folks just want to Improv with no consequences. I don’t call that a game, I call it f*cking around 🙂

      2. Brilliant. Seriously, I could not agree more.

        This is exactly where I’m going with the “What is…” essays: regardless of what people in general think, a game is this, an RPG is that and a game like D&D is a third thing. One of the critical elements, as you say, that distinguishes RPGs from other games – what I call story-telling games – is that it lends itself to a campaign. There is no end-game. Every single example I’ve seen of an “RPG” that breaks the standards we’re accustomed to don’t have that longevity. This is not to say that they’re bad games – party games have their place, after all – but they aren’t in the same league as RPGs.

      3. “party games”

        Right — I enjoy them, but I consider them a fall-back for when we cannot get the players together for a new or ongoing campaign.

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